Although there are many organizations actively searching for alien life, perhaps in the driving seat is SETI and their SETI At Home program. While this is something that allows anyone and everyone with access to a computer the chance to join in the search for extra-terrestrial life, it isn’t the first time, for want of a better phrase, that amateurs have played a vital part in space exploration.
This is increasingly the case in the twenty-first century with the rapid progression and availability of technology. And the fact is professional astronomers and scientists whose work resides in the secrets of space generally accept this assistance gladly. With (relatively speaking) limited funds to investigate and monitor the vastness of the Universe, the help is required. Furthermore, any such assistance is a genuine contribution to humanity’s collective understanding of outer space.
William Herschel Discovers Uranus
It isn’t just in our modern era when amateur watchers of the stars made significant contributions to our collective knowledge of the cosmos. Although he would go down in history as a very respected astronomer, at the time William Herschel made his discovery of Uranus he was merely an amateur.
It was while working as a music director in the United Kingdom in 1781 that he made the historic discovery of a seventh planet in our solar system. At the time, it was the furthest known planet from Earth.
The discovery itself was incidental to Herschel’s actual intentions of searching the cosmos for double star systems. He suddenly noticed a disk shape, but not one that shined as a star would. He at first thought the object may be a comet but he soon ruled this out due to the slowness with which it moved. In fact, it was moving so slow that Herschel soon suspected it had to be a heavenly body. One that was far from the sun. So far that it would lay beyond Saturn. He soon realized this “disk” was a new previously unknown planet.
Not only was it the first “new” planet in recorded history, it was first to be found that can’t be seen with the naked eye. Incidentally, Herschel’s intention was to name the planet “George” in tribute to the (then) King of England, George III. However, and possibly a consequence of his amateur status at the time, the new discovery was named after the father of Saturn, Uranus.
The Double Discovery Of Alan Hale And Thomas Bopp
A little over two centuries later, in 1995, two amateur astronomers would make a remarkable discovery of their own. Furthermore, each did so on his own accord and with no awareness of the other – until they went public with their finds. From that point, their names, at least in cosmic terms, became linked forever.
On 23rd July, Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp set about watching the skies from their separate locations in New Mexico and Arizona respectively. Each was surveying the M70 globular cluster when both noticed something different from previous observations. When both men noticed that this strange new arrival was in yet another different location only hours later they realized it was a comet.
Both Hale and Bopp would submit their findings to the International Astronomical Union’s Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. At the time, it was the furthest comet from Earth ever located and is known as the Hale-Bopp comet.
In March 1997, the Hale-Bopp comet passed through the inner solar system and at its closest point to Earth. Astronomers, both amateur and professional alike, marveled at the brightness of it and speculated of the complex make-up of its structure. It isn’t due to pass as close to Earth for approximately another 4,200 years.
Incidentally, the Hale-Bopp comet also shares one of darker stages of UFO history with the infamous “Heaven’s Gate” cult. According to their belief, a huge UFO mothership was following the Hale-Bopp comet. They believed by committing suicide they would be free of the “Earthly body” and be able to join their extra-terrestrial rescuers. Thirty-seven people died in total – twenty-one women and eighteen men – during the mass suicide in San Diego, California.
The video below features images of the Hale-Bopp Comet.
Amateur Footage Of “Incidents” On Jupiter
Given that it is the largest planet in the solar system, it is perhaps no surprise that many amateur discoveries are made regarding Jupiter.
In 2009, from his back garden in Canberra, Australia, and using a standard telescope, Anthony Wesley noticed an anomaly on the mammoth gas giant. An “Earth-sized hole” appeared in the atmosphere of the planet. Wesley captured photographs of his find and sent them to NASA for further study. Although it isn’t certain, it would appear the “scar” was the result of a huge asteroid or comet.
Seven years later in 2016, two amateur astronomers managed to capture a cosmic event of Jupiter on video. Like Hale and Bopp, each was working independently to the other – from locations in Ireland and Austria. Each would upload their footage to YouTube, receiving much praise from professionals for their work.
The footage shows a mammoth object crashing into Jupiter. So large, that the resulting carnage was visible, albeit through a telescope, here on Earth. You can check out the footage below.
Discoveries Of Galaxies And Planets Far Away
Some discoveries by amateur astronomers go much further than our solar system. For example, in 2013 Michael Sidonio would discover an entirely new galaxy while photographing NGC 253. The discovery (NGC 253-dw2) came from the unlikely location of a farmer’s field, again in Canberra, Australia. What is particularly interesting about this newly discovered galaxy is it appears to be in the process of destruction at the hands of its cosmic neighbor. Now they are aware of its location, scientists will be able to study this process first hand.
Only months previously in late-2012, Planet Hunters – an organization of amateur astronomers – declared their discovery of forty-two previously unknown planets. Furthermore, fifteen of these new cosmic bodies were in the “Goldilocks zone” of their stars – meaning they could harbor or sustain life. It isn’t just the new planets that the amateur team has discovered that causes excitement. Many of the moons that orbit them may also prove to be of immense interest.
Several months before Planet Hunter’s announcement was the discovery of a planet with two suns by two of its members. Kian Jek and Robert Gagliano would make the discovery of this immensely interesting planet. Believed to be the size of Neptune its double-sun system is a fascinating one. NASA would even state it would force astronomers to rethink “accepted” knowledge of planet formation and behavior.
Observed Space Phenomena
Many other amateur discoveries of the bizarre and fascinating workings of the far reaches of space are also proudly on record.
For example, in 2015, the Zooniverse Project would reveal information after studying images from NASA’s Spitzer telescope. They noticed the presence of “yellow balls” in many of these images, something apparently unseen by NASA themselves. NASA would investigate the information reaching a fascinating conclusion. According to their research, these balls were actually the very early stages of stars forming. They would describe the discovery as “ground-breaking”, with others referring to it as an astronomy version of the missing link.
Shortly after this announcement, on Christmas Day 2015, Emmanuel Conseil would literally discover a new star. Furthermore, due to his monitoring this location for several days previously, he knew the star was in the first hours of its life. There were no indications of its presence even the previous day. The discovery received a reasonable amount of media coverage. So much so, it was loosely named the “Christmas Star” for obvious reasons.
There is no doubt that amateur astronomers will continue to play a vital role in humanity’s search for knowledge of the cosmos. And as much as space is infinite so are the possibilities of what new discoveries await us.
The video below looks at some of the most remarkable mysteries of the Universe.